The U.K., now considered to be in post-colonial times, has ostensibly left behind its racist legacy. However, placing the U.K.’s imperial history entirely in the past neglects the relics of imperialism imbued in U.K. society, exhibited through the exclusionary and racist narratives that permeate U.K.’s society today. Protestors targeting statues of important imperial figures as part of the BLM protests brings the historical legacy to the forefront. How can the U.K. claim to have separated from its racist imperial history, while celebrating key figures of enslavement by having them on literal pedestals?
In schools in the U.K., kids are taught about the splendours of the Empire. However, minorities that played a key role in the history of the Empire are often written out. In WWI, 1.5 million Indian troops fought to defend Britain — 400,000 of those were Muslims. While copious narratives of the ‘white knight saviour’ exist, the history of people of colour that had a critical role in the success of the Empire are whitewashed out of history. A study conducted by a thinktank found that only 22% of people in Britain knew that Muslims had fought in WWI. The absence of these minority narratives in mainstream histories is all too common, especially those in schools. Although some could perceive this as a ‘minor’ oversight, these whitewashed narratives perpetuate a ‘history’ of the U.K. that’s entirely incomplete. This partial ‘history’ that dominates today, in “post-colonial” times, then helps create an exclusionary society that allows the far-right to spread their false narratives that Muslims and ‘foreigners’ have never or rarely contributed to British society.
With the rise of the political right, it becomes harder to divorce today’s society from its historical colonial narrative. Whitewashing history only serves to protect the White status quo and further excludes the BAME communities by engraining stereotyped biases into the fabric of society. The current imperial fantasies of the imperial ‘English nation’ became even more apparent with Brexit. The Brexit Leave campaign was rooted in the inclusionary and exclusionary rhetoric that is a symptom of British nationalism. The campaign used images of iconic British landmarks to create a dichotomy between welcome ‘British’ (White) nationals and unwelcomed migrants (people of colour). This success of this campaign and the entrance of the “politics of othering” in mainstream political rhetoric and policies underline how the U.K.’s racist colonial history lives on in today’s society. As scholar Sarah Looney underlined, the politics of othering “aims to disunite, alienate and dehumanise entire groups, specifically migrants and some minorities.”
The impact of this imperial legacy presenting as “politics of othering” has had detrimental effects on the BAME communities living within the U.K. today. Ethnic minorities — so-called ‘foreigners’, who have acquired citizenship or were even born in the U.K. — are still considered “alien”. This pervasive otherness is most apparent with the high levels of race and religious hate crimes. Since 2013, race-related hate crimes have increased 98% with 71,251 between 2017-2018 alone, while religious hate crime has climbed by 415% in the same period. As writer Asia Khutan aptly described today’s postcolonial reality, “we, as a society, are stuck in our glory days — and all its leftover racist, white supremacist ideologies still run through our veins”.
Post-colonial U.K. has yet to depart from its most detrimental legacies of systemic racism and White supremacy. Structural change needs to occur before the U.K. can rightly claim that the country has left behind its imperial legacy. The changes won’t be easy, but will involve an inclusive shift, retelling the complete history of the U.K and empowering BAME communities to feel included within the English national identity.
At JAN Trust, we work to promote racial, religious, and gender inclusivity. We actively work to break down harmful stereotypes in British society that impact BAME communities in the U.K. To learn more about our work see our website.